It also has some applications in geology; its importance in dating organic materials cannot be underestimated enough.
In 1979, Desmond Clark said of the method “we would still be foundering in a sea of imprecisions sometime bred of inspired guesswork but more often of imaginative speculation” (3).
This discovery meant that there are three naturally occurring isotopes of carbon: Whereas carbon-12 and carbon-13 are stable isotopes, carbon-14 is unstable or radioactive.
Carbon-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere when cosmic rays bombard nitrogen atoms.
In the case of radiocarbon dating, the half-life of carbon 14 is 5,730 years.
This means that although they are very similar chemically, they have different masses.
Rachel Wood does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Australian National University provides funding as a member of The Conversation AU.
Working with several collaboraters, Libby established the natural occurrence of radiocarbon by detecting its radioactivity in methane from the Baltimore sewer.
In contrast, methane made from petroleum products had no measurable radioactivity.